Kenya’s Family Party Politics
How you know who you know is vital
This time last year I was in Kenya swinging from one party to another. This year all I got are travel refunds and e-vouchers… thank you KQ. However, I have great memories and I look forward to the death of corona and the inevitable parties that will ensue.
Let me tell you about these captivating parties in Kenya. Some I have experienced; others are things I’ve heard.
In every party, there is the obligatory ‘auntie’, ‘the elderly uncle, ‘the select-group’, VIPs and then there’s the rest of you.
In a typical party, relatives from every corner of the globe will gather in the host’s humble homestead for a feast that lasts the whole weekend and into Monday. Relatives you’ve been introduced to a million times but you still can’t remember their names or how you are related, converge en masse. The elderly and authoritative uncle who demands money from you for various infractions such as failure to launch a potential new husband, “for me to get rich in the negotiations”.
The auntie who shamelessly asks you out loud for everyone’s benefit, “why you are still single when all your agemates’ firstborns are getting married”. The shame. However, no matter how much humiliation and/or embarrassment you suffer, you must be nice to her because she is the matron in everything. She’s also in charge of food and beverage operations at the party — piss her off and you end up eating oxygen and drinking rainwater.
There’s also the church elder or chairman of the committee, this person (usually a man), is always loud, supercharged and appears busy ordering people around: he has an abnormally large belly. This person officiates everything, even things that don’t need officiating — like lining people up for introductions — this ritual can go on for hours because parties like these tend to have every relative present; and each and every one of them must introduce themselves and their children, grandchildren and greatgrandchildren. If a relative has great grands prepare to be mesmerised in unrelated tales of how each family merged to produce the said children.
Despite these going-ons, the ‘select-group’ is always suspiciously in a great mood. This group usually consists of cousins, young aunties and uncles, slightly older nieces and nephew and city dwellers — all around the same age. They have a lot in common and their mind-blowing stories always end in ruptures of laughter that echo in the mountains. They speak in codes. To join this group, you must be certifiably sneaky and trendy.
In these gatherings there’s always a visiting diaspora — this person will be introduced to everyone who has a medical or a financial problem: no amount of screaming… “I am neither a millionaire nor a doctor!” will be heard because the person doing the introductions, usually the busybody matron, has selective hearing syndrome — they only hear what they want to hear.
The sitting area is a tent and plastic chairs rented from the church. The chairs are lined up in rows of 10 with a small corridor between two columns. The set-up looks more like a church service than a party scene, mostly because there’s a lot of ‘talking to the people’ than partying going on. There are no tables, so you have to place your plate on your lap and keep your drink by your feet. The host’s nice dining chairs will be lined up in the front for people who come from the city, and family members who are deemed too important to sit on the plastic multi-coloured chairs. The villagers are expected to fill the plastic chairs only, anyone who can’t find a seat will be expected to sit on the grass. Mind you, the select-group never sit here… ever.
Special caterers are unheard of in these gatherings, the chefs are local women whose serving politics are dangerous. They have special ingredients for their own meal, the best meat cuts and crates of drinks concealed in corners only they have access to. Sometimes they sneak in some beer despite their leader being the prayer slayer.
Alcohol is also available, but there’s a system only accessible to the select-group. The alcohol is served behind closed doors by that same uncle who took your last dollar. Often you see some relatives holding a plastic Coca-Cola bottle filled to the brim with what you assume is coke. However, if you look closely the bottle is forever full, and the colour gets lighter by the hour while the holder gets happier. If you ask them what they are drinking, they will answer nonchalantly, “si ni coke tu” [it’s only coke], but you are no fool.
Usually, the uncle converses in low tones with the select-group, goes inside the main house and returns with things wrapped up as newborns babies. The ‘baby’ is then passed on from one select-group member to another and back to the uncle who disappears back in the house. This is alcohol service, otherwise known as “the kímenyano service” [how you know who you know is important]. It is a-not-so-obvious form of bribery and the only proof is that the select-group looks happier than the rest, and they only eat roast meat and frothy soup.
The frothy soup is made by boiling goat’s head and hoofs and some traditional medicinal herbs. There’s usually a guy, popularly known as KYM (kanda ya moko — maybe what the English call handyman), whose main job is to shake the soup to death in a special container (kívúnyú). After vigorous shaking, the soup is pure froth that melts in your mouth and tastes like heaven. Amazingly, the meat-eating-alcohol-drinking select-group are the only ones drinking (yes… drinking) this soup. Children, of course, would not be caught dead drinking this bitter froth; I remember, as kids, my mum used to hold a gun — she had no gun, so use your imagination — to our heads to drink this concoction! It was torture. The ‘select-group’ will later hide some for the morning to cure the inevitable hangover.
During food service the city guests and honour guests are served first in china and silver, the rest of the party-goers are served in plastics that have seen better days! There’s plenty of tea for teetotallers, sodas are reserved for the city visitors and their important children. The rest, non-tea drinkers, will be served squash, which is so dilute it resembles goats’ pee. The food too is served like the alcohol — kímenyano style. Slipping a foreign note in the hands of the main server might promote your servings to best cuts and top layer.
Entertainment is in the form of a one-man guitar. The music is, of course, gospel, but as the sun goes down and the select-group gets happier the melodies change and a choir forms. By midnight the one-man-guitar is now a free for all and any would-be guitarist, mostly people in the select-group who’d been watering their throats since dawn. The alcohol is no longer served in secret and just before dawn, they end up sleeping around a never-dying fire. Their breakfast is barbequed meat and frothy soup.
In the morning, you wake up early because pangs of hunger have been echoing all night long. You make your way to the kitchen to find auntie and her cronies preparing a delicious breakfast. There is plenty of bread, organic eggs, fermented porridge, some reheated froth, chapati and any leftovers from the party. You eat there and then because late sleepers will only find crumbs and leftover ugali from a week ago.
By midday, the select-group rise with colossal hangovers that only froth soup, meat and Guinness could cure!